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The Boston Globe

Ideas

The Electro-Theremin’s good vibration

Where Paul Tanner’s strange instrument (almost) took pop music

Paul Tanner died on Feb. 5, at the age of 95. There’s a good chance you never heard of him. There’s a better chance you heard what he did. Playing the Electro-Theremin—an instrument he helped design—Tanner lent a gliding electronic sheen to a singular piece of American music: the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Tanner provided the characteristic tone of a particular zenith in popular music: The song was the high point of an ambitious arc celebrating youth and innocence. And then, it all came crashing down.

For a time, it soared pretty far, the latest in a long tradition of California mythologies. Rock and roll, sexual and rebellious, had, by the early ’60s, been toned down by the marketplace. The Beach Boys romanticized that sanitized version of adolescence into a vision of teenaged nirvana: surfing, cars, girls, perennial summer. They rode the wave—10 albums and two number-one singles by the end of 1965—becoming the standard-bearers for sunny, carefree pop.

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